The politics of Osborne's public sector job cull

Why the Tories believe that cutting public sector jobs will help them win.

Few noticed it but buried deep in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest set of forecasts was the revelation that another 20,000 government jobs will be cut by 2017, bringing the total to 730,000.

It’s often said that George Osborne’s cuts have barely begun but that doesn’t apply to to public sector employment. Since Osborne entered the Treasury, 350,000 government jobs have been scrapped, with another 460,000 due to go by 2017 [the 730,000 figure refers to cuts from 2011-2017]. The public sector workforce is now at its smallest level since 2003 [see graph]. In the words of the usually restrained Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development we are witnessing “a tectonic shift in the underlying structure of the labour market”.

By 2017 the number of public sector workers will have declined from a peak of 6.3m in 2009 to 4.9m, the lowest level since comparable records began in 1999. What explains this dramatic cull? Fiscal considerations, naturally, play their part. The deficit is forecast to be £126bn this year [£10bn higher than originally expected] and Osborne wrongly believes that slashing the state is the best way to reduce it. In an inversion of Keynes, he thinks that if you take care of the deficit, unemployment will take care of itself. But Osborne, who is both Chancellor and the Tories’ chief electoral strategist, also has political considerations in mind. The Spectator’s James Forsyth quotes one senior Conservative thus: “You create a bigger private sector, you create more Tories.”

The polls certainly suggest as much. Data from Ipsos MORI shows that while Labour enjoys a 28-point lead among public sector workers, it trails the Tories by six points among their private sector counterparts [see graph].

Logic says that if you reduce the former group and expand the latter [the OBR forecasts an extra 1.7 million private sector workers by 2017] , the Tories will benefit. A smaller public sector means fewer people with a vested interest in high levels of state spending. Even if the private sector fails to pick up the slack, studies show that the unemployed are among the least likely groups to vote. Putting Labour voters on the dole is win-win for the Tories. Osborne may claim that his cuts are born of necessity, rather than ideology, but be in no doubt about the political nature of his project.

George Osborne plans to cut 730,000 public sector jobs between 2011 and 2017. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.